©1997, Scott Ainslie. Available online for educational use at http://cattailmusic.com/Blues/BluesRoots/bluesStudyGuide.htm.
Scott Ainslie is a master of the traditional blues guitar styles that gave rise to rock 'n' roll and fueled the folk revival of the 1960's. He began playing guitar in 1967, after hearing grave digger and blues musician John Jackson perform, and has continually sought out senior traditional players, visiting musicians throughout eastern North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and West Virginia
Drawing on the musical legacies of Delta Blues legends Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, the East Coast's Blind Blake, and Durham's own Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Boy Fuller; Scott is a noted performer and scholar with more than a decade of experience teaching elements of African and African-American music to students of all ages, both in the classroom and from the stage.
Coming of age during the Civil Rights era, Scott continues to have a deep reverence and affection for cross-racial exchange and approaches the tradition with the care and respect it is due. Welcomed and accepted as an equal by his mentors (George Higgs of Tarboro, NC (b. 1930), Etta Baker of Morganton, NC (1913-2006), John Jackson of Fairfax Station, VA (1925-2002), and Willie Malloy of Fayetteville, NC (b. 1900); Scott honors the African and American roots of the tradition and presents a mesmerizing tour through the music and the history of the Blues.
The term Blues has roots that predate the music we know as 'Blues' by at least two centuries.
In the time of William Shakespeare [1564-1616], people believed in fairies and sprites---invisible, magical beings that could assist or worry people as they went about their daily lives. In the context of this superstition, when someone became irritable or depressed for no obvious external reason, people would say that "the blue fairies", or "the blues" were bothering them, like a cloud of gnats or mosquitoes might worry us today.
By Thomas Jefferson's time [1743-1826], the notion of invisible fairies had fallen into disrepute. But the expression of 'having the blues' can be found in Jefferson's writings, and was still a common expression for those less-than-happy emotions to which we are all prone.
Blues and other African-American art forms often show their deep African roots in what are known as African Retentions---parts of African traditions that we still find embedded in American and African-American music, art and culture. In Blues, the easiest of these to identify include:
The Blues developed differently in different regions of the country so that people speak of 'Texas Blues', 'Louisiana Blues', 'Chicago Blues' and the like. But the music can be divided most broadly into two distinct styles: Delta Blues from the Mississippi Delta and Piedmont Blues, also known as East Coast Blues, which were played in the more eastern states, from Washington, DC all the way to Florida.
As you’ll remember from 4th grade earth science, a delta is an alluvial deposit that occurs at the mouth of a river where it enters a larger body of water, slows down and releases its load of sediment in a triangular deposit. The name comes from the symbol for the Greek letter 'delta', a triangle.
The Mississippi Delta is a leaf shaped plain that stretches from Memphis in the North to Vicksburg in the South and is bounded by the hill country of Mississippi to the East and Arkansas to the West. Delta Blues stayed very close to their African roots, retaining many African musical values.
In the early 1800s, the Mississippi Delta was both an inviting, and forbidding place. The Mississippi drains 41% of the continental United States, including all or part of 31 states its catchment area stretches from New Mexico to New York. As a river system, it is superseded in size only by the Congo and the Amazon. The Mississippi has been spreading out and flooding the lands around it regularly for eons. Topsoil in the Delta has average thickness of more than 132 feet and has measured in places more than 150 feet.
The Mississippi River made the Delta an agriculturally perfect farm land that was nearly too dangerous to work. Settlers risked the floods of the Mississippi to reap the rewards of cotton, and huge plantations were set up. While cotton grew knee high in Alabama and Georgia, South and North Carolina soils, the cotton in the Delta could grow as tall as a man and produce yields two and three times per acre what could be grown elsewhere. Land holdings were large – 2,500-3,000 acres – and would have 250 - 300 slave, later sharecropping, families on them.
Towns in the Delta were far apart and, after the Civil War, plantation owners set up the Share Cropping system, whereby former slaves would remain on their plantations in the Delta and work. In exchange for their labor, their former owners continued to provide food, supplies and shelter, and at the end of the planting season they would theoretically 'share' the crop.
As the land owner could read and write, this typically worked out in their favor. Plantation owners usually stocked a commissary on the place and allowed their workers to take out goods on credit, against their share of the crop. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, after the harvest and sale of the cotton, share croppers would be called into the land owner's office to settle accounts. Land owners generally charged outrageous prices for the goods in the commissary---even taking out rent for the share cropper's shacks (built by their forebearers)---leaving many share cropping families heavily in debt at the end of a year working the fields. [This quickly became an economic extension of slavery. There are many accounts of share croppers being as much as $700 dollars in debt to the land owners at the end of a season---the equivalent of $10,000-14,000 today!].
These circumstances in the Delta worked to isolate Delta sharecroppers and musicians---economically, geographically, socially, politically and musically --- leaving them very much to their own devices for survival, and for their entertainments. Delta Blues grew in this dark soil, retaining much of its African character, but on the East Coast things were different.
Piedmont Blues, also known as East Coast Blues, were played in the coastal Southern states, from Washington, DC, all the way to Florida. At the turn of the century---when Blues started to develop and be noticed---Ragtime music was king.
In 1900, the Black composer Scott Joplin published "The Maple Leaf Rag" and sold one million copies of it, in a country of only a little over 75 million! Joplin's rags and John Philip Sousa's marches were immensely popular and influenced dance and music styles all over the country, except in the Delta and other severely isolated regions. In Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Florida, Black guitarists and musicians heard and responded to Ragtime and Piedmont Blues grew to a different beat and dance style.
Unlike the Delta, land holdings were much smaller on the East Coast and towns were closer together. Share croppers could get into town to get their own supplies and hear the music of the time. From around 1900 until World War II, the east coast reverberated to this ragtime-influenced blues, which came to be named for the region in which many of its most famous and popular recording stars were based.
Up until 1942, when the city outlawed street music and one of its most respected musicians, Blind Boy Fuller, died, Durham, North Carolina was home to Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller (Fulton Allen was his given name), harmonica great Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Additionally, Chapel Hill was home to the young Libba Cotten, who, as a young girl, wrote the words to 'Freight Train' (recorded in the 1960's by Peter, Paul & Mary). And Morganton, NC is still home to Etta Baker, a nationally recognized Piedmont Blues performer who has been given a lifetime achievement award by the National Endowment for the Arts---and North Carolina's own Folk Heritage Award---for her lifetime of performing and advancing North Carolina's Piedmont Blues tradition.
The audience is an important part of any performance. The arts are all forms of communication, and benefit from the focused attention of both the listener and the performer. Performers do a better job when their audiences support them with polite attention.
There are often times during a performance when the audience is welcomed to sing and participate actively and there are times when the audience is welcomed to participate by actively listening. Live performances in schools are important ways of presenting information actively, and give children the opportunity to witness art forms live and close up that they may only have been exposed to through a television or computer screen, or radio.
As students develop audience skills and respect for the efforts of the performer, they gain self-respect that will serve them for the rest of their lives. By encouraging their polite attention for the performance and complimenting them for their efforts afterwards, you will help them experience and develop that respect.
Scott often opens residencies with an activity to focus children on developing a skill that is required for life-long learning: curiosity. His introduction of the activity follows. Feel free to introduce the activity in a way that makes the most sense to you.
My activity introduction for older (middle & high school) students:
"When I was a student, I often thought that a lot of what I did in school was irrelevant to my life and my concerns. The questions I was being asked to answer generally seemed either too simple or too arbitrary to be of much use to me.
"Over time I began to realize that questions are what drive education. Take control of the questions and you control the direction of the education! So, in addition to the questions I had to answer to satisfy my teachers, I began creating my own questions to structure my own education.
"I dedicated myself to creating questions that were going to further my understanding of the parts of a subject that I found interesting. I discovered that any fact, when presented to a sufficiently curious mind, can be met with at least one--and usually lots of--interesting questions.
"Finding any question is easy. The trick is to learn to build questions that serve your own curiosity and further your education. Finding the right questions, interesting questions, takes some practice. And that's what we're going to do to get started: practice creating questions.
"I'm going to read you a short list of facts, and for each fact I present, I'd like you to write down the three best questions you can create. So please sharpen up your pencils---and your wits---and get a piece of paper on which to write. "Let's do one together on the board first to get started."
EXAMPLE FACT: The number of motorcycles owned by a motorcycle gang in Moscow that has thirteen members: One.
"Now please raise your hand if you have a question about this fact."
Write volunteered questions on the board. Brainstorm openly with the students if they are slow to start. My questions include:
"Now you've got the idea. I will give you a few moments after I read each fact to think and write a response. Please respond with three written questions to each fact that follows:
[Take a sampling of questions from a variety of students after each fact, being sure to solicit contributions from each of your students before discontinuing the exercise. Please offer questions of your own as a participant and facilitator.]
You may, of course, use facts of your own choosing. This exercise can be a lot of fun and, as students get used to the habit of having a curious mind, it can become part of your class culture. If it does, remember you don't have to have all the answers, you just need to know where to send the students to find them.
America is often described as a 'melting pot', but actually a more apt description may be that of a salad---where every element retains it's own character, but combines with other elements in a harmonious, or rather, delicious whole.
Some of the ingredients of American music come from Europe, some were indigenous, and there are elements from Africa, as well. The African elements are recognized as African retentions---parts of African tradition that survived the dreaded 'Middle Passage' (the time spent between capture in Africa and enslavement in this hemisphere) and are retained in American and African-American music today. African retentions in American music include :
Call & Response: a structure rooted in communal singing in which a solo call is answered by a group response--adapted to include instrumental responses in Delta Blues, a change that led to the musical conversations' evident in Jazz, Black (and subsequently, White) Gospel, Rock 'n' Roll, Heavy Metal guitar solos and much more.
Rhythmic Variation: used as an expressive element in much the same way that European musicians vary harmony and melody for expressive effect. African musicians vary meter and beat sub-divisions (especially 3:2 contrasts) in a complex layering of simple rhythmic patterns to create highly complex soundscapes.
Syncopation: the placing of rhythmic pulses off the established beat---an extension of the rhythmic variations that drive African- American music and dance styles.
Emotional Singing: which can include shouting, crying, screaming and other speech sounds not typically found in European singing prior to the 1950's and 60's, when African-based vocal styles began to be heard more widely. [In your mind, compare Julie Andrews and Aretha Franklin; Perry Como and Ray Charles; Pat Boone and Little Richard...]
Even the youngest students can identify these characteristics after they are explicitly presented to them. Kindergarten students have readily brought in music from home that demonstrates some of these African characteristics, and, as you might expect, the genres that show up include Gospel, Country, Heavy Metal, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Rock, Folk, Contemporary Ballads, Reggae, Ska, World Beat and Funk.
If you play Disc Jockey one day and offer the students examples that illustrate these African retentions (African Drumming by Ola Tunji, The Neville Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone, Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston, Hip Hop, Jazz, etc.); the following day the students can be the DJs and bring in music of their own that also illustrates the retentions. [*The only rule I use for music is that there be no profanity in the part of the cut that we play. (Profanity is about hurting other people's feelings, and that is not what we are about at school. Profanity is also a real cop out---if you develop your vocabulary, you can communicate whatever needs to be said without recourse to obscenity.)]
When students bring music in to be played, they should be able to point out which African retentions they hear in the music they are going to play. Typically, after recapping the retentions with the students help, and writing them up on the board, I ask students to come to the front of the room, bring me the CD or cassette (cued to the track), and introduce the music they have brought by telling us:
Offered the opportunity to rule the CD player for a cut---along with the responsibility of identifying African retentions in music they like---students generally jump at the chance. In a fun and open atmosphere---that can include dancing with the lights turned down, if everyone behaves --- students synthesize and integrate what they have learned and consistently demonstrate their understanding of the musical elements at work.
Having worked with thousands students over time, I can think of only 3 or 4 who came in and really missed the retentions entirely. And in a supportive, brainstorming classroom, even apparent failures become opportunities for achievement and for fine-tuning the class's understanding of the subject.
Blues generally have relatively simple harmonic and lyric structures. A twelve bar blues contains three lines of four measures (with four beats per measure). Because the first line of each verse is repeated, we only need to create two rhyming lines for each verse. For example:
I believe I'll travel---I believe I'll get away.
I believe I'll travel---I believe I'll get away.
I'm goin' down to Carolina, the Bull City's where I'm gonna stay.
From "The Bull City Blues", (©1996, Scott Ainslie) Used by permission.
In music, as in poetry, we identify the form of a verse by assigning a new letter of the alphabet to each different line in the form. The first line of this verse is thereby assigned (A), the repeat of the line (A) and the rhyming third line (B):
(A) I believe I'll travel---I believe I'll get away.
(A) I believe I'll travel---I believe I'll get away.
(B) I'm goin' down to Carolina, the Bull City's where I'm gonna stay.
This is known as an [A-A-B] Form, where the first line is sung twice and rhymes with the following line. Part of the beauty of this form is that it is simple enough to allow for improvising lyrics in the midst of a song---and gives you time during the repeat to think of the rhyming line!
Your Blues can be written en masse, in small groups, or by individual students. Going after the first one en masse tends to get the ball rolling and acclimates everyone to the messiness of the brainstorming/creative process.
Before beginning a class Blues, it helps to solicit what it means to have 'the Blues'. Ask your students: "When we say someone has 'the Blues', what do we mean? What feelings are we describing when we say someone feels 'Blue'?"
Make a list of appropriate responses on the board. My list includes:
Lonely Mad Sad Exhausted Depressed Jealous Envious Grumpy Bored Confined Upset Sick Feeling Like You've Been Treated Unfairly
Your classes list may be longer, or shorter, but should include some of these.
Once your have your list, you'll need to agree on a topic for the song: it's your Blues, and should be about things that give you the Blues. Ask your students:
"The last time you felt one of these ways---angry, sad, depressed, lonely, bored, or like you were treated unfairly---what was the cause? What gives you the Blues?"
[NOTE: I have had everything from the cafeteria food to teen (and preteen) suicide come up on these lists. Handled in an open, straight-forward manner, this can be a very cathartic exercise for a class to pursue together and may bring out things about your students' home situations that will help you better tailor your efforts to their needs. The loss of someone---whether through divorce, the death of siblings, parents, grandparents or pets---often comes up; as does the loss of a job that supports the family; having to move away from friends; and in some contexts pressure to act against your will (in the context of drugs, money or sexual situations).
One fifth grade class in Columbus, Georgia once wrote an absolutely killer tune about when parents fight. We sang it at an assembly for the PTA, and you can believe we had a lot of nervous parents out there when we introduced that Blues!
"I came home last night---and they were at it again...."]
Settle on a topic for your song as democratically as possible. I often have several votes. When you ask children to vote, especially fourth grade and above, it is always productive to give them a few seconds to confer quietly with their neighbors prior to each vote.
I generally let them vote initially for their 3 favorite topics, eliminate the low vote getters and work our way down through votes for their 2 favorite topics, to the final run-off for their 1 favorite.
Do not be concerned if polarizing or highly emotional topics get suggested in the general list by the hothead in your class, these topics are often edited out of the options by the class in the voting process (peer consultation plays a critical role in these decisions).
If a troubling topic does happen to win, then you'd best be prepared to try to focus the class' efforts in a constructive way on the fly. Being honest and unfrightened may become the job skill you most hope to have.
If the students suggest things that a specific person does that drive them crazy, keep the lines non-personal by substituting a role (teacher, friend, bully, etc.) for the person's name---again explaining that the arts are about communicating constructively, not about hurting other people's feelings.
In dicey situations, for balance, you can follow a difficult verse from one point of view with a suggestion that we write a verse from the other perspective, such as,"What do you know that students do that drives the teachers crazy?" All students have an answer to this question, they've made a study of it since the beginning of their school careers and will eagerly volunteer their expertise here.
In this way you can help manage the class's work and feel good about sharing the outcome outside the context of your particular class process.
Setting your Blues lyrics to music is easier than you think. For one thing, you can just chant the words with rhythmic, back-beat hand clapping and have a pretty good time. But for the ultimate experience, involve your music teacher.
The Blues are easy to fake, and at this point in history they are an indelible part of our collective musical subconscious. But, in case you are out of touch with that part of your subconscious, there follows a brief primer on the standard twelve-bar Delta Blues shuffle.
Blues are a very specific American art form that came about when African musical traditions collided with European musical traditions. Harmonically, the music is marked by Major/Dominant-Seventh chords (non-musicians can safely skip the rest of this sentence) and by the flatted Third scale member in the melody, which effectively pits a minor feel in the melody against the major feel of the harmony.
See, that wasn't that hard, right?
This gives the Blues it's own particular feel. The reason that the music seems to be at odds with itself in this way, is that it comes from two cultures, and partakes of two ways of creating and understanding music.
European chord structures (based on our seven note Diatonic scale) are overlain by a Minor Pentatonic melody (based on an African five note scale). Slamming these elements together makes this the only musical form in the world where every chord in the music can be a Dominant-Seventh. (Non-musicians can safely ignore the last two sentences!)
If we write out these competing scales, we begin to see the nature of the conflict, and if you play them, you can hear the difference, too.
The standard western, or European major scale in the key of E is:
E F# G# A B C# D# [ E...].
The Minor Pentatonic scale, beginning on E is
E G A B D [E...].
If you have flexible Orff Instruments available, you can lay out only the five notes in the Minor Pentatonic scale, hand any kid the mallets and you will hear that they can't play a wrong note in a standard blues progression!
If you play a straight twelve bar blues progression, one bar (four beats) per chord (non-musicians, take a little break), you get:
I - IV - I - I , IV - IV - I - I , V - IV - I - V
using Dominant-Seventh chords, anyone can solo over the vamp and sound like B. B. King (on a xylophone, of course)! If you don't have flexible instruments available to you, you can simply put colored tape on the correct keys of a piano, or under the correct strings of a hammer dulcimer or zither-type instrument and you're still in business.
[NOTE: This is extremely fun. DON'T RUSH THROUGH THIS. And please don't be precious with the mallets and only let your talented students play. This is one of those moments in the classroom where everybody can win. If need be you can re-visit this activity over a few class periods to guarantee that everyone has a fair shot at it. Honesty, fairness and democracy at work.]
Prepare to document your work with the class and/or to present it to a larger audience with video, audio, or live performances.
Isn't it funny how someone who is completely comfortable in front of a bunch of barely socialized kids can freeze up when confronted with a group of reasonably well-behaved adults? Or a video camera?
At times like this, it is useful to reflect on the fact that we spend an inordinate amount of time showing our children and students how to work, and a minuscule amount of time showing them how to play.
Know that if you are afraid of being a fool in public, you will never have much fun on stage or off. This is a Zen thing: you will succeed by being willing to live with your mistakes, by being willing to mess up.
Eleanor Roosevelt is reputed to have once noted that there are only really two possibilities in life:
Success and Quitting! [Consider this carefully, it changed my life when I heard it.]
Unlike most of the rest of humanity, in Mrs. Roosevelt's view, failure is not the opposite of success; it is a component of it.
It's a fair bet that none of us would walk upright if we had let failure stop us as infants. But as adolescents (and as adults) we often become more sensitive to how we appear to others and less willing to fail. And that often makes us less willing to try. We give up a part of our potential to our fear of failing. I learned this indirectly from Eleanor, but....
Documenting your class' Blues song---whether you are in front of, or behind the camera---is a great way to preserve the effort and the lessons that have gone into your Blues. And it is a great way to defend funding for Arts-in-Education grants.
If you would like to begin to assemble materials for more in depth listening and reading on African-American music, culture, and Blues, in particular, the next section may be a helpful start.
©1997, Scott Ainslie. All Rights Reserved.
May be downloaded or copied for nonprofit, educational use only. All other uses require express written permission of the copyright holder.
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Cattail Music, Ltd.
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